My ten-year college reunion is this weekend, and while fraternities didn’t exist at Harvey Mudd College, I did spend two years living in our campus’ closest approximation. North Dorm was a mostly male dormitory (to be fair, HMC was a mostly male college) that featured initiation rituals, fairly intense camaraderie, and relied on freshmen to perform most of the manual labor. We even had our own set of Greek symbols (Ãâ‚¬oe), which represented an activity that I was later banned from campus for engaging in. The dean has graciously given me permission to return to campus (the fool! Muahahaha!) although I can genuinely pledge that I have no evil intentions. And I say this not because I expect my feelings to change once I set foot on campus, but because it’s important for me to make a written record of this now, while I’m sober.
Animal House (1978) is by far the most influential college movie of all time. The concept of filling a dilapidated house with a motley collection of misfits and rejects has been enthusiastically imitated in such films as Revenge of the Nerds (1984), PCU (1994), and Old School (2003). The idea of a “toga party” has become part of our national lexicon. I’m quite certain that at some point Martin Amis, aghast at some of the incomprehensible garbage spewing from the pen of Christopher Hitchens, took aside his fellow writer and told him “my advice to you is to start drinking heavily.” And one can only wonder how many times Richard Hernstein and Charles Murray have trudged home after an unsuccessful night at the clubs and called up Pat Buchannan to complain, “the Negroes took our dates.”
The Film: Animal House
The Song: “Louie Louie”
The Artist: The Kingsmen
Who’s Who: The original script for Animal House went through a rather lengthy development process. The characters Larry Kroger (Thomas Hulce) and Mandy Pepperidge (Mary Louise Weller) were created for National Lampoon magazine by its first editor-in-chief, Doug Kenny. He joined with fellow Lampoon writers Chris Miller and Harold Ramis to develop a screenplay based on their own college experiences. It took nine separate drafts before it became palatable enough for Universal to invest in, granting the project a $3 million budget. John Landis, who made his first impact directing the Kentucky Fried Movie (1977), was selected by the studio to direct. Although there was some initial friction between the high school dropout Landis and the Ivy-League writers, it didn’t break out into class warfare and the film was shot in a tidy 28 days at and near the campus of the University of Oregon.
Although many of the roles for the film had been written with specific actors in mind (Bill Murray as Boon, Dan Aykroyd as D-Day, Chevy Chase as Otter), the filmmakers had trouble signing their first choices and were forced to rely on unknown newcomers like Thomas Hulce (Larry), Karen Allen (Katy), and Kevin Bacon (Chip). The only stars the filmmakers were able to cast were John Belushi and Donald Sutherland. Belushi was still making weekly appearances on Saturday Night Live while the film was shot, and flew back and forth between Eugene and New York weekly in order to maintain both commitments. It was while in Oregon that Belushi first met Curtis Salgado, who fueled Belushi’s interest in the blues and served as the inspiration for Cab Calloway’s character in the Blues Brothers (1980).
While the original version of “Louie Louie” was written and performed by Richard Berry, the version used in the film and by far the most familiar incarnation was recorded by the Kingsmen in 1963. Singer Jack Ely’s mangled enunciation of the originally innocuous lyrics spawned rampant speculations of obscenity, so much so that the FBI engaged in an inconclusive 30-month investigation into the potentially lascivious lyrics. Ironically, they never bothered to interview Ely himself.
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Why it Works: Fraternity hazing has devolved to the point where it is nationally and internationally banned, and most states have specific anti-hazing laws. With each successive class intentionally more sadistic than the last, it’s interesting that the hazing-related injuries and deaths that have occurred haven’t seemed to affect fraternity enrollment. The brief introduction of the pledge class into the Delta Tau Chi house provides a pleasant example of what initiation into a fraternity should be — a celebration. It’s expressed wonderfully in Larry Kroger’s shrieks of glee as he’s soaked with beer, and the requisite male bonding among the Deltas is captured nicely as Bluto leads the pledges in attempting to sing along to the incoherent lyrics of “Louie Louie.”
The solemn initiation of Chip into the Omega Theta Pi house provides an interesting contrast to the cheerful antics of the free-spirited Deltas. The Omega president Greg Marmalard (James Daughton) speaks of the “bonds of obedience,” in a prelude to his eventual destination in the law-and-order obsessed Nixon administration. And the chilling look of satisfaction on Niedermeyer’s (Mark Metcalf) face as he paddles Chip speaks volumes about what kind of commanding officer he is destined to be once it becomes time to fulfill his ROTC commitment (as the film’s credit’s attest, he is fragged by his own troops in Vietnam).
What Goes Wrong: Acting drunk on camera is a tricky bit of business. I’ve read that the best technique is to attempt to act overly sober, working subtly with understated cues like overenunciation and deliberativeness in movement rather than pounding away with overt effects such as slurred speech and stumbling. The absolute worst time I’ve seen someone “act” drunk on camera was an episode of Friends where David Schwimmer’s Ross is drunk and angsty about something having to do with Rachel. The best that I can recall is actually Dwight Yoakam’s performance at the end of Sling Blade (1996), where the only overt sign of drunkenness is how slowly he processes information and reacts to it. Although I imagine the actors in Animal House, led by the irrepressible Belushi, probably were at least a little bit intoxicated when this scene was filmed, Thomas Hulce takes it over the top with his cackling as the Deltas are singing along to “Louie Louie.”
Other Stuff: Donald Sutherland was offered a choice between a flat fee ($40,000) for his work or a percentage of the film’s profits. To date, Animal House has earned in the neighborhood of $140 million. Of that, Donald Sutherland has received $40,000. By his own admission, he chose very, very poorly.
Also, could there possibly be any better nickname for Kent Dorfman than “Flounder?” I doubt it.